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The Best of Vietnam

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From the colonial, French-influenced Hanoi to the white sand beaches of Hoi Ann to the frenetic pace of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam is a fascinating country that’s exotic and captivating and will make your head spin. A country with a long history, today’s Vietnam is a mix of old and new, juxtaposing modern cities and ancient temples, with some of the best food in Asia. There’s a lot to do and see in one trip, and a good itinerary is your best friend. Just back from a two-week journey we are lucky a well- traveled friend was willing to share her detailed itinerary with Daytripper365, designed for her family by ASIA TRANSPACIFIC JOURNEYS.

HANOI

Stay: The Metropole Hanoi is Vietnam's finest hotel, located in the heart of Hanoi near Hoan Kiem Lake and the magnificent Opera House. Boasting a classical white façade, green shutters, original wrought iron detail and a lush courtyard, the hotel is one of the region's few remaining French-colonial structures. Elegant architecture and sophisticated service combine for an unparalleled experience.

Morning: Begin by learning of Vietnam's greatest hero Ho Chi Minh, visiting his simple stilted house. Continue to the Confucian Temple of Literature, site of the first university in Vietnam and a serene and beautiful place in the midst of this bustling city. Other highlights today include tours to a local market, the Beaux Arts-style Opera House, the One Pillar Pagoda, and lovely Quan Thanh Temple.

Lunch: Venture to Quan An Ngon Restaurant for a street food lunch. Quan An Ngon is designed with seating in a spacious courtyard surrounding a giant central tree, with food stalls on all four sides cooking food to order. Prices are quite reasonable, so feel free to sample and try a variety of dishes. The stalls are organized into categories of food, such as noodle soups, dry noodles, salads and wraps.

Tour: After lunch, tour the city's Old Quarter aboard an electric car. In this part of town, each colorful street is devoted to a particular craft or ware. You will be pedaled amongst the quaint French buildings along Shoe Street, Silk Street and Art Street (to name just a few). Your tour of the Old Quarter will end at historic Hoan Kiem Lake, the social center of Hanoi. Here, attend a water puppet performance. Water puppets are an ancient form of entertainment enabling the puppeteers to control their active marionettes by levers hidden under the water. Water puppet skits generally enact ancient folklore and legends that are rural in origin, and the theme of water is often present, as it defines so much of Vietnam's landscape. The show is also accompanied by beautiful and traditional Vietnamese music. After the performance, enjoy a "behind the scenes" experience and go back stage to meet the artists and learn more about the puppets and performers.

HANOI / HALONG BAY

Fly: Take a seaplane to Halong Bay. Flying allows you to avoid the long four-hour drive while also enjoying spectacular views of the Red River Valley and a 15-minute scenic flight over the bay itself, another of Vietnam's UNESCO World Heritage sites. You'll be exploring Halong Bay in style and privacy aboard the Bhaya Legend, luxury Chinese-style sailing junks designed exclusively for private charters. The ships have spacious ensuite and air-conditioned guest suites designed in classic Eastern style and offering luxury fit for Imperial Royalty. Onboard you'll receive attentive personalized service, an ideal option for couples, friends or families wishing for a private, customized charter cruise on Halong Bay.

Boat: Savor a delicious fresh seafood lunch onboard before continuing to Vung Vieng, a fishing village nestled among the limestone islands. Visit the village by kayak or small row boat to see the daily lives of locals up close. You'll then have the option to swim and kayak the turquoise waters off uninhabited islands with pristine white sandy beaches. Back onboard as dusk falls, watch the sunset over enchanting Halong Bay while cruising to your overnight anchorage. Enjoy a set-dinner this evening followed by an evening of leisure, or join the crew for some night fishing.

Sleep: Overnight on board the Bhaya Legend Boat.

HALONG BAY/ DA NANG/ HOI AN

Awake: Drive about one hour to the city of Haiphong, the north's largest port and former administrative center for the French. You will then transfer to the airport for your short flight to Da Nang.

Tour: Upon arrival in Da Nang, meet your private guide, and depart on the 20-30 minute drive to the Marble Mountains, where five craggy marble outcrops are situated atop a hill across from China Beach. Climb the stone-paved path up the mountain to visit the numerous caves containing ancient Buddhist shrines. There are also a couple of wonderful pagodas to visit. (This excursion takes about two hours.)

Sleep: Four Seasons

HOI AN/ DA NANG

Drive south to Hoi An, one of Vietnam's great artistic gems. For hundreds of years, until it was superseded by Da Nang, this was the most flourishing port in the country and attracted traders (and influences) from China, Japan and Europe. Miraculously, the town has remained intact and it's still possible to wander here and imagine oneself in another age. 

Explore: On arrival, depart on a walking tour through the old town which will include landmarks like the Japanese Covered Bridge, Tang Ky House and the Fukhien Association. Also visit the active local produce market and perhaps browse the wares inside the town's numerous art galleries. 

Vespa: This afternoon, enjoy a private Vespa tour of the countryside outside of Hoi An. Setting off from Café Zoom in Hoi An, head out west along the banks of the Thu Bon River, first stopping at a bustling local fish market before heading into the rice paddy rich countryside and local villages, stopping to meet a local family producing local rice crackers. Crossing a bridge over the Thu Bon River will take you through more quiet villages and then into beautiful farmlands, where you'll take a break for a local picnic lunch while surrounded by seasonal vegetables in the picturesque fields of corn, eggplants, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, and herbs. 

As the sun starts to go down, you'll set off through the rice paddies, passing duck farms, visit a local mat weaving family and then ride along by the prawn farms and over the river to visit a charming family home where they produce the local and potent favorite brew – rice wine. It's then a short ride over the Cam Kim Bridge into Hoi An as the sun begins to set on this beautiful heritage town.

Sleep: Four Seasons

HOI AN / DA NANG

Cycle: Go on a cycling tour of Cam Kim Island. Laid back and rural in character, the island of Cam Kim is perfect for exploration by bicycle. Crossing the Thu Bon River by private wooden boat, your adventure begins with a visit to the island's busy fishing port before heading further into the lush interior. Cycling around the island is a real treat. Paddy fields, out-of-the-way settlements, stunning coastline and even the odd precarious-looking bamboo bridge to ride across all add to the appeal of this little-visited island. There will be plenty of opportunities to stop and interact with the local communities during your leisurely cycle ride: observe local farming methods, learn about the art of mat weaving and see how bamboo basket boats are made. Experience all this and more before making the return trip to Hoi An. 

Float: Then, board bamboo basket boats and float down the river. Disembark and head to the 4th-century Cham religious sanctuary of My Son. Arriving here later in the afternoon will help avoid the morning crowds of tourists at this small site and also provide wonderful, soft light for photography. 

My Son, recently classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, is located in a beautiful, green valley surrounded by impressive mountains. While a small site, the ruins at My Son are the largest and most intact remaining in Vietnam. It is also the home of the Museum of Cham Sculpture, which records the development of the culture and history of the Cham people through their elaborate sculptures and carvings. Fly out the next morning.

DA NANG / CON DAO

Stay: Six Senses Con Dao presents elegantly designed modern accommodations offering generous personal space with lush tropical mangrove vegetation and breathtaking views. There are 50 spacious villas, each have their own private infinity pool and unobstructed views of the East Vietnam Sea. Styles range from single-level to duplex and offer one, three and four bedrooms, with indoor-outdoor bathrooms. The efficient design style reduces air conditioned spaces whilst providing additional natural ventilation. 

CON DAO / SAIGON

Upon arrival in Saigon, meet your private guide and driver and immediately depart on the one hour drive outside of the city to the Viet Cong stronghold at Cu Chi. The hundreds of miles of tunnels here often confounded American troops fighting in a very foreign land. Sections are open to tourists where one can climb in and get a feel for the harsh conditions faced by the thousands of Vietnamese who lived and fought in these tunnels. 

Back in Saigon continue to the touching War Remnants Museum containing reminders of the war in graphic detail. Continue to the Reunification Hall, historically known as Independence Palace, the former nerve center of the war for South Vietnam. Still largely maintaining its 1970s décor, the palace rooms are surprisingly spartan. The dank, reinforced basement has large-scale maps, communications equipment and tunnels. 

Finish up the day with a walk through lively Cholon market, Saigon's Chinatown and a hub of activity. Haggle for unusual produce, interesting trinkets and beautifully made handicrafts. Stop by Saigon's most celebrated Buddhist shrine, the Thien Hau Pagoda

Return to the city late this afternoon where you will have a chance to relax and freshen up before ending your day with a special performance at the Saigon Opera House of the A Oi Show which combines traditional Vietnamese imagery and themes with 'Cirque de Soleil' acrobatics and showmanship. 

Sleep: Park Hyatt

SAIGON / MEKONG DELTA / DEPART

Wake & Drive: Drive south (two hours each way) into a region known as the Mekong Delta, where Southeast Asia's mightiest river splinters off into hundreds of branches before emptying into the South China Sea. The land here is some of the most fertile in the world and supports endless fields of rice and fruit orchards. 

On the Water: Upon arrival in Caibe, embark on the lovely Caibe Princess boat, where you'll be welcomed with fresh rolled cotton towels. The tour will start with the visit of Cai Be colorful floating market. You will visit some local home factories such as rice paste making, rice pop corn, coco candies and longans drying process. You will then return on boat to proceed the excursion to Dong Phu, Binh Hoa Phuoc and An Binh islands located between Vinh Long and Cai Be. These evergreen islands among the Mekong River bring about large networks of meandering rivers, criss-crossed with countless arroyos, and remaining unknown to many people. 

Add On: If you have more time, consider visiting Sapa. Take a round-trip journey to northwest Vietnam by overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai and Sapa, where you’ll spend your time hiking past rice terraces and scenic mountain valleys to local villages. 

** This itinerary was written by ASIA TRANSPACIFIC JOURNEYS | 800.642.2742 | AsiaTranspacific.com  - please feel free to contact them to arrange for drivers and guides.

 


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Chicago’s Best Bites

Narrowing down where to eat on a recent trip to Chicago wasn’t easy. Did we want to revisit old favorites such as Blackbird, Naha or The Publican? Dine at high-end legend Alinea or their brand new, much praised, more casual Roister. Did we spend hours trolling the Internet, grilling the hotel concierge and asking local friends –yes, yes and yes. Can we save you time with our go to list—again-yes, yes and yes. Happy eating!

Side Note: Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and you could very easily dine well without leaving a zip code. Taxi’s and Ubers are plentiful, and you can also hop on the “L,” Chicago’s elevated train line.


Wicker Park: Right in the heart of hip Wicker Park, are our new favorite next door neighbors --Dove’s Luncheonette, and Big Star Tacos.

  • Dove’s is perfect for a solo meal or a cozy couples date, with counter service (just 41 stool seats) Dove’s doesn’t work for a group. A Tex-Mex diner with retro throwback chic, our lunch of chicken fried chicken with chorizo gravy with sweet peas, (a signature dish) was worth the Uber.  With over 70 agaves and tequilas to choose from, we’d love to return for a casual dinner date.

  • It’s always a party at next-door’s Big Star, especially on a warm day or evening when the patio is packed with groups enjoying tacos and pitchers of margaritas, beers or bourbon.

  • After lunch, we spied someone walking by with a soft serve that looked so good we just had to ask. Right across the street at noodle heaven, Urban Belly, you must get  (you don’t need to be hungry) a soft serve vanilla ice cream topped with peanut butter and jelly. Trust us.

West Loop: You could easily eat all your meals in the red hot west loop ‘triangle’ with everything on or branching off Randolph Street, a mini restaurant row.

  • Many visitors make Au Cheval a priority destination; fans claim this is the best burger in the country. With a no reservations policy and long waits, go early so you can grab a seat at the bar and see for yourself. (Tip: in Bucktown, sibling, Small Cheval you can get the same burger, smaller yes but with the same taste, an outdoor patio and usually no wait)   

  • The reigning star of the West Loop, Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat has not lost any steam since it opened some eight years or so ago --still an impossible reservation to come by. No luck getting a table, go and sit at the bar, and sample from the eclectic menu. The Goat empire continues across the street at Little Goat, good for breakfast and lunch—a diner with a chef’s creative twist. We loved the inventive Chinese fare at Duck, Duck, Goat washed down with killer cocktails.

  • The space at Avec is cool and minimal, the service is professional and friendly and the food is delicious, with many vegetarian options. Do not miss the chorizo-stuffed bacon-wrapped dates. There’s a reason you see it at every table.

  • We wanted to love Bad Hunter, it’s a big, lively space with an interesting veggie-centric menu, but the food was good, not great. Press has been very enthusiastic, so perhaps we hit an off night.

The Loop: After a mandatory stop at Cloud Gate in Millennium Park, or a visit to The Art Institute, go high at The Chicago Athletic Association. Reborn as a hotel, the 1920’s Venetian Gothic building, an architectural gem offers tours in conjunction with the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

  • Cindy’s, the rooftop restaurant at the Athletic Association has stunning panoramic views overlooking Millennium Park and Lake Michigan. The seasonal American plates compliment the view, quieter at lunch; things heat up at 5 when everyone arrives for cocktails around the fire pit or in the glass and steel atrium.

River North: Rick Bayless may be the most famous chef for Mexican fare this side of the border and his three restaurants in River North are favorite Chicago destinations.

  • Head to Frontera Grill, the original restaurant for casual, regional specialties while Topolobampo features more daring, sophisticated tasting menus. Xoco, right next door, is counter service only, perfect for a quick meal of Mexican street food, known for excellent tortas. (Bayless’ new Lena Brava in the West Loop has the critics going crazy—with no stoves and no gas everything is cooked open-hearth on a wood-burning stove.)

Logan Square:

  • Lula Café put Logan Square on the map serving locally sourced fare on its inventive menu, you’ll find long lines at brunch and dinnertime, but we enjoyed a quiet weekday breakfast with no wait and no crowds

  • We had our best meal of the trip at tiny Giant. The narrow space is perennially packed thanks to fried uni shooters, homemade biscuits with jalapeno butter, crab salad with waffle fries, drool-worthy pasta and pecan-smoked baby back ribs. Come hungry and order as many small plates as your tablemates will allow.  (If you wind up waiting as we did--our table was lingering and who can blame them--head to corner lounge Scofflaw for an artisan cocktail)

  • Fat Rice can be credited for bringing Macau cuisine into the spotlight. (a fusion of Chinese-Portuguese influences) Though everything on the menu sounds great, the namesake dish of Arroz Gordo (fat rice) is the draw, resembling paella on steroids.

 


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